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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Seattle's Civilian Police Oversight System Gets New Auditor

On April 10th, the Seattle Police Department's civilian oversight system auditor's contract expired. That auditor, Katrina Pflaumer, was the first auditor for our current system, called the Office of Professional Accountability, or OPA, and appeared to do a pretty good job at being auditor from what little we can tell through the very secretive system we have in place.

What always impressed me were that her reports were always packed with very useful information. Often times there would be no way to tell what OPA finding applied to which case in the OPA's monthly reports until the bi-annual auditor reports came out and cited some of those cases as examples of problems seen within the current system.

In that aspect alone it seems that the auditor's position is the most important within that system since it is the only one that actually gives the system at least a small semblance of transparency.

Ten days after Pflaumer's term expired, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced the appointment of a new auditor for the Seattle Police Department on Monday, April 20th.

That auditor, Michael Spearman, served as a King County Superior Court judge from 1993 through 2007 and before that he was a public defender with The Defender Association.

Currently he's been employed as a mediator with Judicial Dispute Resolution LLC where he's been involved with mediating and acting as an arbitrator in personal injury and family law cases.

Additionally, he's mediated complaints against the Seattle Police Department from citizens through the OPA's mediation program for people who filed complaints against officers in minor misconduct cases.

From most accounts he's generally considered fair and has a reputation for being quite dedicated to the impartiality that's required of a judge despite his past history on the defense side of criminal law.

For those unfamiliar with Seattle's civilian police oversight system, the Office of Professional Accountability or OPA, is made of three parts:

OPA Director - provides general oversight of the OPA. Responsible for reviewing and certifying finalized investigations performed by the OPA, which is staffed entirely by Seattle Police officers, and providing recommendations on findings and disciplines, but the chief has final say in how officers are disciplined and can overturn her findings.

The current director has been a staunch supporter of the SPD, it's officers, and the current OPA process, but is otherwise rarely heard from.

OPA Review Board - The OPARB consists of seven members who are basically limited to review of general statistics on OPA results and heavily redacted files from completed investigations in order to make general recommendations to council and the mayor.

Recent changes to the OPARB has limited it to nothing more than a public relations role after the last board became highly critical of the OPA process and were censored as a result. All previous members have been replaced since then.

OPA Auditor - The auditor is responsible for reviewing investigations as the occur as well as review of finalized investigations in order to provide feedback on any problems with the process and on any specific issues with ongoing investigations to improve the process.

The auditor does not have any real say in determination of findings or recommendations for disciplinary action, but has access to all information available to an investigation, unlike the OPARB, and can make recommendations or annotate investigations as they occur.

The auditor also releases reports to the public twice a year, which is probably the only real informative information released by the OPA so far.

For all intent and purposes, I don't see any problems with this appointment, though I also think that even the best auditor in the world would still be limited by the system in which that person is placed, and the OPA system is incredibly limiting since any changes to that system must be approved by the police union in their contract.

When I asked former judge Spearman about the nomination and what his plans are for his term as OPA Auditor, he was gracious enough to reply, which is alot further than I've gotten with any other member of the OPA, even the OPARB which are supposed to do outreach. So that's a good sign right at the start of his term.

Here's what Spearman had to say about the new challenge he's about to face...

You've asked a number of questions that it is too early for me to give a good answer. I need to make myself more familiar with Ms. Pflaumer's approach to the position before I can really say what I might do differently than her.

I also would like a chance to meet with and talk to Ms. Pflaumer, the members of the review board, members of the community at large, the SPD Guild and get a good sense of the bigger picture beyond retrospectively addressing allegations of police misconduct.

However, I do think that the idea of being pro-active and taking steps to prevent instances of misconduct is a good one that is well within the scope of the auditor's charge.

Initially my biggest challenge will be to assimilate the data that has been collected by the OPA Review Board and the input that has been provided by the community and the guild, which I understand is substantial.

I do think my experience as a judge will be helpful in the position of auditor since I have often had to weigh the practices of law enforcement against the rights guaranteed by our state and federal constitutions. I also have considerable experience in criminal law as both a former judge and a former public defender.

In any case, I certainly wish judge Spearman the best of luck in this new position and I hope that he continues the the same practices of transparency and honest effort that the previous auditor appeared to put forward as the only clear, but small, window that we have into the police department's secretive and opaque disciplinary process.

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